Al Green loved Elvis Presley as much as he loved Mahalia Jackson. His vocal showmanship paired with the faith that grounds his singing is all the evidence you need. He started from nothing, the son of sharecroppers in Arkansas. As of this writing, he has 29 studio albums and 11 Grammy awards.
Still using the original spelling of his name, Greene, he got some boyhood friends to put out his first album on their Hot Line label. Back Up Train (1967) might not have been made under the most professional circumstances, and the arrangements might lack polish, but this young talent is unmistakable. The vocals on the title track are somehow laid back and urgent at the same time. That combination of features has become the standard for great soul singing, largely thanks to Green.
In 1969 Green had his first opportunity to work with Memphis-based producer Willie Mitchell at his Hi Records studios. The resulting album was Green Is Blues. Artists lucky enough to make albums with Mitchell got a double treat: Mitchell’s own genius at the controls, plus his “house band,” a five-man team of top-notch session musicians calling themselves the Hi Rhythm Section.
Mitchell shared co-writing credit with Green for the track “Tomorrow’s Dream.” The brass arrangement, stretching long tones under Green’s conversational, scrappy vocal rhythms, is the kind of contrast you get when arrangers really know their craft. The modulation in the middle of each verse is also a fun twist.
Once he was in with Mitchell, Green blossomed. And the arrangements just kept getting better in support of Green’s vocals. The 1971 record Al Green Gets Next to You yielded “You Say It,” a funky delight written by Green. Some reviewers have rightly described the album’s sound as “gritty” (a compliment), and this song really embodies that adjective. It’s not just the purposeful scratching of Green’s voice, but that controlled distortion of the funk riff supplied by the Hi Records session musicians.
When Livin’ for You came out in 1973, it was Green’s seventh album in as many years. The hard work continued to pay off: This record went to No. 1 on the soul charts and No. 24 on the pop charts, plus had two hit singles.
Worth exploring is “Free at Last,” Green’s unique take on the spiritual quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech, intertwining it with a new romantic lyric. The swooping violins might sound dated now, but the song wonderfully exhibits how, in his prime, Green could be simultaneously a vocal acrobat and a sensitive soul.
The Willie Mitchell gang was still on board for Al Green Is Love (1975), and their gifts merge perfectly with Green’s in “I Gotta Be More (Take Me Higher).” The first half of this strolling-tempo tune is a model of dramatic restraint. Green sticks to his lower register and lets the rhythmic details drive the motion: extra syncopations and delays and phrase-shaping so subtle you could never notate them.
By 2:00, he’s an octave higher, and the strings backing him are now themselves backed by the house brass chorus. Layer upon layer. It’s a thing to behold.
But the Hi Records days couldn’t go on forever. Musicians often respond artistically to changes (good or bad) in their personal lives; the more profound the life change, the more the art reflects it. The big switch in Green’s creative output happened when he became an ordained pastor in 1976, in part a reaction to a traumatic event: a girlfriend attacked him and then committed suicide.
By the end of the decade, he’d lost interest in singing soul for a secular pop audience, and he dedicated himself instead to gospel. As it turned out, critics at least were ready to follow him in that direction. The title song of the 1980 album The Lord Will Make a Way won him his first Grammy.
His next eight albums were also gospel, generating singles that garnered another half dozen Grammy Awards. The singing pastor had found a new musical identity. By no means did this diminish his artistry or style. It’s eye-opening to hear the first track of Trust in God (1984), a wistful cover of a frankly square white gospel number, “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home,” written and recorded by Joe South in 1969. The song becomes a completely different creature in Green’s hands.
A sign of great gospel singing is the performer’s ability to move the listener with his or her faith, whether or not it’s a faith the listener shares. No matter what your creed, I defy you to listen to the title song from I Get Joy (1989) and not feel a little better about existence. Besides the infectious vocals of Green and his backup singers, much of the energy comes from Archie Mitchell’s drumming and Jimmy Kinnard’s funky bass.
Your Heart’s in Good Hands (1995) marks Green’s return to secular music after devoting most of the ʼ80s to pure gospel. (A notable exception is his 1988 duet cover of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” with Annie Lennox for the movie Scrooged.)
While the single “Keep on Pushing Love” was lauded for its classic sound, that’s the exception and not the rule on this album. It’s a big clue that high tech is involved when the liner notes credit four separate people for “programming.” An example of their digitized input is “What Does it Take.” For a second your ear might be fooled that this is classic funk-tinged soul. But listen harder, and you’ll realize that the drumming isn’t quite supple enough to be live, and what seems like a guitar riff soon splays into impossible synthesizer pitches.
With Lay It Down (2008), the aging soul man showed the world that he’s not afraid of the younger generation and the changes in R&B. Anthony Hamilton and John Legend are guest artists on this album, as is Corinne Bailey Rae, who is featured on “Take Your Time.” The organ and delicate brass that open the song tell you this will be something special. Bailey Rae’s rich, bluesy voice makes a bittersweet blend with Green’s falsetto in the chorus.
Although he hasn’t released a record since Lay It Down, Green is still with us, working as a preacher in Memphis. I’m betting he sings from that pulpit every chance he gets.